Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut: A Baroque Dithyramb

All of this happened, more or less. Anna Jean was real, and that was almost her name. Babette was real, but that wasn’t her name. I guess I’m more afraid of upsetting Babette than Anna Jean, even after all of these years. The two kids are real too, but I won’t name them, to protect their anonymity and mine, as anonymity’s a precious commodity too easily sold these days. The explosion in the quarry really happened, too, but in Kansas City, Missouri. It killed six firefighters. Buck Drumstick is real too, but he won’t ever read this. Not because he’s dead, no. It’s just because even if he knew that I was alive, and had written this, he wouldn’t give a fuck. So it goes.

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Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (Dell Laurel Edition, 1988; first published 1969)

There are blackbirds and sparrows calling outside my open French doors as I write these words, and the news is full of worrying tidings. Robert Kennedy will have been dead fifty years soon, so for him, the early 21st century is a dawdle. He had just died, Vonnegut tells us, as he, Vonnegut, was nearing the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, as he tells us at the beginning of the final chapter. He doesn’t have to worry about the maddest faux-President since Nixon (although that’s unfair to old Dick, as he was actually elected), the renewed threat of Global Disaster, and the insanity of attempting to undo the rational, scientific application of good government by a bunch of sociopathic lunatics. The two kids are two kids that I know. Not in a sinister way. They don’t work for me, or arrange my speaking appearances. No, they just go to school and, when I pick them up twice a week so they can visit us at home, they occasionally give me little insights into things in their lives, like an old lady in a park hands out breadcrumbs. They’re reading Slaughterhouse-Five, by the much-missed Mr. Kurt Vonnegut, in their English class. Slaughterhouse-Five is an American novel written in the late 1960s. It’s about a lot of things. Mostly it’s a savage attack on war, conventionality, and being abducted by aliens. Mr. Trumpkin probably hasn’t read it, since it doesn’t seem like he’s read much, but it’s a good read. He might learn something from it (well, that’s doubtful, but we can live in hope, as that hasn’t been made illegal yet), and he’d probably like page 209 (in my edition at least), because there’s a drawing of a pair of tits there. So much for the dignity of the presidency.

I pause and put a Cadbury Milk Chocolate Mini Egg in my mouth. You can only get these little devils around Easter, when they are supposedly excreted by a rabbit. I may have my facts wrong there. Nevertheless I love these little chocolates, and have to be careful when I buy them. I could easily eat them all, a whole bag, in one sitting. I have no self-control, and I’m trying to get fit again. Don’t ask me how it’s going – I wouldn’t want to bore you. Those crispy candy shells are so very good, though. But I was talking about Slaughterhouse-Five. Remembering that when I was in high school, we didn’t read things like Kurt Vonnegut for class-work, casts me back in time. I think back to when I first read this book, and something in me switches off, I feel dizzy, and I’m off to sleep.

I wake up and it’s the 1980s, and I’m in my American literature class. It isn’t the same class that the kids are in; that would be weird. It’s taught by an older woman, called Betty. I forget her last name. I could look around for a while and probably find it, but it just doesn’t matter that much. She was nice, but firm, and a little dry in her attempts to entice us into the wonders of American literature. The class is full of students, a mass of vaguely familiar blank faces, but I only remember Anna Jean. She and I sat next to each other at the back of the room, and passed notes back and forth while Betty droned at the front of the classroom. Anna Jean was neither clever nor dim, just sort of nice and average. She had been held back a year in primary school, I think, which meant that she was slightly older — and slightly better developed — than most of  the rest of the girls in our year. She had a sort-of cute face and nice boobs, and she had her own car. At that sort of age, those things were of monumental importance. She used to give me rides home after school, and we’d tease each other playfully, but it never led anywhere. Anna Jean was the best friend of my first serious girlfriend, Babette. I mean “high school serious” here, so you know that it was Earth-shattering. Babette was short and blonde and smart as a whip. She had an unusual mole on the underside of her forearm, but I can’t remember which arm. She loved The Far Side by Gary Larson. We broke up part-way through my freshman year of high school, and it was the worst thing to ever happen to me, and retained its place at number one on the list for almost fourteen years, until something even worse happened. Anna Jean would feed me some of the dirt on Babette’s subsequent relationships, which I would consume with a mix of fascination, jealousy, and regret.

It’s a few years later, and I work in a bookshop in a mall, unstuck in time once more. Next to a candy store, a bookshop is a terrible place for someone like me to work. I’m buying and reading Vonnegut, because he is funny and vulgar and profane and clever. I read Slaughterhouse-Five and Galapagos and Bluebeard and Hocus Pocus and others, and I wonder why the books that we read in high school and college can’t be clever like that. It is only much later that I learn to appreciate those “dull” books, and find, even that some of them are also incredibly funny. Some are also powerful, full of ideas that are difficult and challenging. They are like an explosive lobbed into a young mind, threatening to cause chaos and disorder, and the to reorganize that mind along a new pattern.

The morning of the explosion I was woken up because the windows of the house rattled, and the walls shook. It felt like an earthquake to me, even though I hadn’t been in an earthquake yet. In an earthquake, the shaking can carry on, like it did one Labor Day, where it seemed to go on for a good thirty seconds. Talk about portents and omens! You begin to worry that the glass in the windows will crack and shatter under the strain. My first real earthquake wasn’t until 2011, the year that I first went to San Francisco and toured the area around Point Reyes National Park. Point Reyes is basically a big lump of the seafloor from the Pacific tectonic plate flung up against the North American tectonic plate. When you get out to the Point, which you do by driving a long, twisty road, to where the lighthouse stands at the bottom of a long flight of stairs, the rock is amazing. It has its own name: the rock is called Point Reyes Conglomerate. It’s thrown up in layers and ripples and patterns that remind you of how awesome the forces of geology are.

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View from Point Reyes National Park, Marin County, California. August, 2011 (photo by the author)

The lighthouse and the road that you walk up to reach it are probably familiar to a lot of film viewers. They were used in the 1980 horror film, The Fog, starring Adrienne Barbeau. Barbeau has always reminded me of Anna Jean for two specific reasons. I’ll leave you to guess what they are. The lighthouse on Point Reyes is where her “radio station” was located. When you come back up the stairs and look down the hill along the road to the car park, you see a long, straight line of beach, with the surf of the Pacific Ocean crashing against it. That exact scene is in the film, or at least, in my memory of the film. I have a picture of the kids, sitting on the windswept highland, with that long straight line of surf in the background. I get nostalgic for it, especially when I smell fresh basil, which reminds me of the eucalyptus trees along the highway that you take to get to Point Reyes.

Further inland, you can hike a trail along what used to be private property — a farm or something, I could look it up — and you can stand on the San Andreas fault and see the point where the fence jumped. You know that famous picture? The one with the fence? Fences are supposed to form a continuous line: it’s kind of the definition of a fence: continuity. Anyway, this fence across the San Andreas Fault used to be in a line, but in the 1906 Earthquake, the one that leveled San Francisco and set all of those fires that burned a lot of the city to the ground, the fault jumped by some ridiculous distance, twelve feet or twenty feet, something like that. If you go there now, two blue-painted posts mark the distance between the original two points. This fence, which was previously continuous, now has a gap in it, twelve or twenty feet wide. It no longer serves as a fence. Instead, it serves as a reminder that mankind is a small, arrogant, impermanent, and weak species, victim to the slightest whim of Mother Earth. So it goes.

But the earthquake that I felt in 2011 wasn’t while I was in San Francisco. No. I had to go back to the place that I call home, for lack of a better or more disparaging name for it. It was back in the Midwest, where I had the misfortune to be living at the time. I’d rather live in the San Francisco area, honestly. Hell, I’d rather live lots of other places, so long as they are quiet and I can occasionally here the blackbirds and meadowlarks. If my father hadn’t been unimaginative, and hadn’t kept up trapped in the Midwest, and picked up and gone to California when he lost his job in the late 1970s, I could have grown up awkward and confused and isolated in California, instead of in _________. My father already knew California from his basic training days out there, at Camp Pendleton, or so he claimed. He kept all that from me, though, that whole alternate possible existence, by keeping us stuck in Rivertown, _________. I guess you could say that I blame him for that. You might even say that I have some unresolved issues in that department. I wouldn’t have known Babette, or Anna Jean, or Butch Tillerson or Buck Drumstick, but that wouldn’t have mattered, because everywhere you go, there are Babettes and Anna Jeans and Butches and Bucks. It’s just the way the world works. I would have felt earthquakes, too. I might even have gone on to be a geologist, like he always dreamed that I would be. So it goes.

The earthquake in 2011 and the explosion in 1988 are true, and the one reminds me of the other. In my first earthquake, in 2011, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom, and suddenly, it felt like the house was swaying and vibrating, as though it were built on a giant Magic Fingers machine, and someone had switched the machine on. I came out of the bathroom and asked my wife, “did you feel that?” but she was sleepy and hadn’t noticed and turned over and went back to sleep. I spent a half hour hunting around the Internet, that bastion of all things trivial, until I found that yes, there had been an earthquake, centered in some backwater in Oklahoma. Actually, most of Oklahoma seems like a backwater, where Marlboro Man clones elect science-denying jackasses like James Inhofe repeatedly to the Senate, as though science is the mole in a giant Whack-A-Mole game, and Inhofe has a particular zeal for swinging the mallet. Inhofe thinks that he knows more than scientists. I don’t “beg to differ,” because I simply know that James Inhofe is an arrogant science-denying idiot, and I sincerely hope that he is swallowed up by the earth. That would be a small measure of justice.

The earthquake was caused by the process of injecting the wastewater and sludge and chemicals that are used in oil and natural gas drilling back down into the Earth. After “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking,” the remaining filthy sludge is put down what’s called an “injection well.” Imagine taking a giant needle full of liquid tar and chemicals and shit, and plunging it into the ground, and them pushing the plunger down, like some sadistic Nurse Ratchett. Sorry, wrong book. But imagine that. Once it’s deep beneath the earth, the drilling waste interacts with long-dormant faults, and because the injection is done in such volumes and pressure, sometimes, the faults actually wake up, and start slipping, and then POW! You have an earthquake. The place where I live is supposed to have basically zero earthquake risk. Instead, I’ve felt three in the past six years. That’s a hell of a lot more than zero, especially when you’re talking about earthquakes. Previously, the only really significant known earthquake in this part of the world was the New Madrid Quake Event, over the winter of 1811-12.

That shaking and rattling that I’ve felt in the various earthquakes over the past few years always remind me of the explosion. The explosion happened at the end of November, in the days when the end of November still meant cold and frost and even some snow in the week after Thanksgiving. It was 1988, later in the same year when Anna Jean and I had flirted around each other like randy moths, but never consummated anything. The boom of the explosion was so loud that it woke me up from a dead sleep. What happened was this:

This kid from my school was part of a family who were locally known, basically, as petty criminals. Butch Tillerson was a member of this clan. He was a bully and a thug all through primary school and junior high, after which I saw less of him. By high school, he almost never crossed my path anymore, apart from the occasional sighting in the hall. Then he dropped out. I don’t think that he was particularly stupid. He was just a product of his environment, a living trial of that experiment that Zola was so hung up on, between nature and environment: which maketh the man? With a decent upbringing, he might have been a useful member of society. Maybe. Anyway, Butch and his clan were out doing some vandalizing. I assume there was nothing good on T.V. Almost exactly three miles from my house, there was an old limestone quarry. It was cut into a hill in tiers, three deep. You could see the drill holes from where the quarrymen had made holes to drop down explosives, to blow away more of the exposed face of the quarry wall. My father used to take me there to look for fossils, or to set off fireworks, which were banned within city limits. Once in the quarry, we were setting off smoke bombs: you know, the colorful little balls with a fuse that, when lighted, pour out a cloud of colored smoke for about five seconds, then flame out and leave you with a sulphurous colored cloud to try and breathe in? Unfortunately, the flame at the end from a carelessly thrown bomb ignited some dry dead grass, and we started a small fire. As a good Boy Scout, I rushed to stop it, and beat the fire out with a piece of scrap lumber that happened to be discarded there. Disaster was averted.

Unfortunately, when Butch Tillerson and his kin came to the quarry a half-dozen years later, they weren’t intent on putting out fires. By this time, the quarry was being worked again, and the quarrymen had left a small locked shed on the premises, in which they stored ammonium nitrate without properly marking the fact on the door of the shed. Butch and his boys tried to break into the shed, and, when they couldn’t, they set fire to some things in the area and went on their way. They didn’t know about the ammonium nitrate; they were probably just being vandals, because that was what society had taught them to do. It’s hard to say who’s to blame; clearly, they shouldn’t have set the fire, and the courts blamed the Tillersons later.

wreckageThe fire was seen from the nearby highway, and soon the fire department was summoned. Two trucks responded, carrying a total of six men. The men wore their coats and metal hats, and drove in trucks full of water with long hoses. They didn’t know about the ammonium nitrate either. Ammonium nitrate is used as fertilizer. It’s also highly explosive under the right conditions, and can be used as a bomb. When Radical American Terrorists decided to blow up the Federal Courthouse in Oklahoma City in 1994, they filled a truck with ammonium nitrate, wired it up in a very good approximation of a bomb, and parked it and ran away before the timer went off. In this way, they killed over two hundred people, including a bunch of innocent children. Likewise, when the firemen in their coats and metal hats came to put out the fire in the quarry set by Butch Tillerson and his boys, the fire reached the stored material, and blew up in a massive explosion. It killed the six firefighters instantly, burned their trucks to a crisp, and destroyed the quarry. There’s a memorial on the site now, next to a couple of busy roads that have been carved by the ground on which the men died. Six markers in a row, three on either side of a flag pole. You don’t drive right over the exact spot, but if you’re superstitious, it’s uncomfortably close. And that was the explosion that woke me up, which felt to me like the same earthquakes that I felt years and years later. So it goes.

I’m back to the present moment, and still thinking about all of the baggage that the kids won’t have when they’re reading Slaughterhouse-Five, because they didn’t read it at the same time that I did. I, on the other hand, won’t have the same baggage as the kids who read the book in 1969, when it was another anti-war book, serving to confirm their notions about the Army and the War and the Famous Green Berets. Vonnegut did something almost Homeric with his story, in telling the tale of a war, in giving some characters and events phononymic qualities; “fleet-footed Achilles,” and all that malarkey. But the way in which imagery resonates with the reader depends on the baggage that the reader is carrying. In 2017, my baggage and the kids’s baggage is very different. But, my baggage was also different when I first read the book in 1989. So in effect, I’ve been two different people, from the first to the second time that I read this book.

I’d moved on by the time I started reading Vonnegut. My English class was, late in 1988, taught by an attractive, slender woman with dark curly hair called Jacqueline, who once submitted to a back massage by my then-friend, Buck Drumstick. Buck was the one who had dated Babette after she and I split up, and after she went out with a guy called Roger, and had made it with her where I hadn’t. By then, however, Buck and Babette had split up as well, in a break far more acrimonious than ours had been. I considered Buck my best friend for a while, but I quickly learned that I wasn’t his best friend. So it goes. Buck got so turned on by massaging attractive, slender Jacqueline’s shoulders, and looking down her blouse, that judging by the hard-on that everybody else in the room tried not to see but, like a road accident, all eyes were drawn to, things might have gone further. In fact, it seemed very like there might be something else going on, but it might just have been that he was a horny eighteen year-old, and he was touching a woman. A real woman. Not some high school girl like Babette.

Early in the next year, Babette and I would decide for some reason that I can’t remember to do a dramatic interpretive piece together for our Forensics class, one in which we kissed for the first time in three years. Her lips were soft and cool and different, somehow, from how they had been three years before. But they were still her lips, familiar and yet strange as they were. For a while, I thought that we might get back together. We didn’t. What did I know? I was still a teenager. I don’t think that we ever performed the piece, either. I’d like to think that maybe things might have gone differently, if we’d carried on rehearsing and things. But it wasn’t to be, and Babette soon moved on.

I never saw Babette again after university, although I occasionally think of her. I missed Roger’s tragically young funeral, which was probably my last chance to see any of those people. I know that her last name changed, and I assume that she’s still short and blonde and smart as a whip. Sometimes I still wonder about her, but only if I’ve had too much to drink or am feeling really self-pityingly nostalgic. My life is otherwise happy, and I haven’t seen its end yet, which I usually manage to consider to be a good thing.

There are no Tralfamadorians in my tale, by the way, solely because they didn’t bother to abduct my grandfather when he saw their flying saucer by a waterfall in 1952. My grandfather was a traveling salesman, and he drove a lot of interesting places, selling his wares. He used to drive through areas where there were mines, and watch for roadside stands from which he could buy mineral specimens that the miners had smuggled out in their lunch pails. He loved minerals, because he’d grown up around the mines of Idaho Springs, Colorado: pretty pieces of quartz and fluorite and hematite and galena and hundreds of others. I come by that particular hobby honestly. My grandfather, as far as I’m aware, was also never unstuck in time. Neither did he ever bed a blue film star, unless my grandmother has some explaining to do. Of course she can’t now, being dead for twenty years, although somewhere back in the twentieth century, the Tralfamadorians teach us, she’s still alive. Maybe she could explain then, if necessary, but it would be an awkward conversation. Apparently, when my grandfather saw the flying saucer by the waterfall, the little loo plungers with hand-eyes on top were looking for someone a bit more Bunyanesque, so they had to settle for Billy Pilgrim, and left my grandfather behind. Too bad for my grandfather, I think he might have enjoyed Tralfamadore.

Outside, as I finish this piece, the birds are still calling. There are the calls of sparrows and blackbirds and hawks and meadowlarks, all actively discussing the latest news from Birdington despite the cloud-strewn grey day. But not one of them asks: “Poo-tee-weet?”

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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